Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda deportation legislation survived a right-wing Conservative rebellion after would-be rebels announced they would not vote down an unchanged Bill.
The Prime Minister saw the Safety of Rwanda Bill pass its third reading in the House of Commons by a majority of 44 on Wednesday evening.
More than 60 Tory MPs had earlier supported an amendment designed to toughen the draft law, voting for a proposal designed to allow UK ministers to ignore emergency injunctions by European judges attempting to stop asylum seeker deportation flights to east Africa from taking off.
But Downing Street went into the third reading vote knowing it had seen off a potentially damaging defeat after the majority of rebels signalled they would back it even without any amendments being accepted.
The Bill will now move to the House of Lords where it is expected to face serious opposition.
Speaking after an 11th hour meeting of right-wing Conservatives in Parliament, a rebel source told reporters: “The majority of those people who spoke in the room have decided to back the Bill at third reading.
“A small number of colleagues will vote ‘No’ on a point of principle.”
The division list showed 11 Tories rebelled at third reading, including sacked home secretary Suella Braverman and former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, along with Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, leading figures in the New Conservatives faction which is pushing for tougher migration measures.
Lee Anderson, who resigned as deputy party chairman to back rebel amendments on Tuesday, was among at least eight others who had no vote recorded at third reading but had backed the anti-Strasbourg court amendment on Wednesday.
It means the size of the Tory rebellion is likely to have been close to 20.
Home Secretary James Cleverly, speaking in the Commons ahead of the third reading vote, said he respected those who had put forward amendments that they believed could strengthen the Bill.
He looked to reassure MPs that the legislation was “in complete compliance with international law” while also preventing legal challenges to deportation orders.
“This Bill sends an unambiguously clear message that if you enter the United Kingdom illegally you cannot stay,” Mr Cleverly said.
“This Bill has been meticulously drafted to end the merry-go-round of legal challenges.”
Labour looked to exploit the divisions in the Tory party over the Bill, with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper telling the Commons “this chaos leaves the Prime Minister’s authority in tatters”.
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said the Bill’s progression was “no victory” for Mr Sunak.
“Days of Conservative chaos and infighting has left the Prime Minister’s authority shot,” he said.
While 61 Tories backed a failed amendment proposed by Mr Jenrick that was designed to allow ministers to ignore so-called Rule 39 injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), dozens of the rebels went on to back the Rwanda Bill at third reading, including former prime minister Liz Truss and ex-business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Hardliners who carried through on their threat to vote down the legislation were vocal in their claims that it would not work.
Mr Kruger told the Commons ahead of the third reading vote: “The Bill, as it stands, still allows lawyers to use foreign, international law, commitment and protocols to override the supremacy of Parliament and I deeply regret this.”
Mrs Braverman, during the debate on proposed amendments, said the British people would not forgive Mr Sunak’s Government unless the Rwanda legislation was toughened up to sideline Strasbourg judges.
She said the ECHR was “controlling this country’s ability to stop the boats”.
In 2022, Strasbourg used a Rule 39 to effectively ground a deportation flight destined for Rwanda.
When defending his Bill, Mr Sunak has said there were circumstances under which he would be prepared to ignore such orders but hardline Tories wanted the pledge written into law.
The passing of the Bill will have been a relief for the Prime Minister who has had a bruising week.
Senior red wall MPs Mr Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith resigned from their deputy party chairman positions to vote in favour of rebel amendments on Tuesday, while ministerial aide Jane Stevenson left her Government job to back changes.
Mr Sunak has made the Rwanda policy — first proposed in 2022 while Boris Johnson was in No 10 — central to his premiership, forming part of his pledge to stop small boats of migrants from coming to Britain by the English Channel.
He has tried to tread a middle path with his Safety of Rwanda Bill, aiming to avoid a damaging rebellion on the right of the party while keeping liberal so-called One Nation Conservatives content that the legislation does not breach the UK’s international commitments on human rights.
Under the plan, migrants who cross the Channel in small boats could be sent to Rwanda rather than being allowed to seek asylum in the UK.
The legislation, along with a recently signed treaty with Kigali, is aimed at ensuring the scheme is legally watertight after a Supreme Court ruling against it last year.
The stalled policy comes with a £290 million bill but no asylum seekers arriving by unauthorised routes have yet been relocated after a series of challenges in the courts.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame said it was the “UK’s problem” that no asylum seekers had yet been deported under the scheme.
He suggested UK taxpayers’ money could be returned if there were no flights, although a spokesman for his government later appeared to row back on his comments.